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breaking caste

From left: Mahendra Meena and Pankaj Meena were medical students with Anil Meena, who died by suicide in March.Lana Slezic/The Globe and Mail

The sharply truncated life of Anil Meena was marked by a ferocious tenacity.

From the mud house in rural Rajasthan, where he grew up in a family of subsistence farmers, he made his way first to school and then to the top of his class. He studied with monomaniacal intensity and passed the entrance exam to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the most prestigious of India's professional colleges – an achievement almost unfathomable in the largely illiterate aboriginal community from which he came.

At AIIMS, he battled through classes where he couldn't understand a word of the English being spoken and pored over a dictionary to get through textbooks. When an arbitrary rule change – that just happened to affect only students from backgrounds such as his – cost him a passing grade in a crucial exam, he tried repeatedly to meet his course director, his friends say. He sat outside the man's office for four or five hours at a time for a week.

But Mr. Meena had come up against something his intelligence and perseverance could not overcome: Students of his kind are not welcome at AIIMS, no more than they are at other prestigious Indian universities. They rarely graduate. No one was prepared to help him succeed.

On March 3, Mr. Meena hung himself from the fan in his small dormitory room. He was 22.

His death was a crippling blow to his family, a shock to his friends and an ugly blemish for AIIMS. It was also the 20th reported suicide in four years at an elite Indian educational institution by a student who was either aboriginal or Dalit – the people from the bottom of the Hindu caste system, once known as untouchables.

The suicides have emerged as a subject for fierce debate. Following the promise of the new India, these students are hyper-achievers from the grimmest of backgrounds, who made it into the schools that produce engineers, doctors and business leaders who are sought the world over.

But when they get there, they are often isolated, humiliated and discriminated against. They are told overtly by their professors that they will never make it to graduation. Yet many feel they cannot drop out – families and communities are invested in their success, and many have taken huge loans.

Some, trapped in this dilemma, have chosen to end their lives.

In the very places that produce the innovators who are supposed to shape its future, India is dogged by the darkest forces from its past.

"It's very pervasive and very invisible," says Shweta Barge, who monitors educational discrimination for the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. From a Dalit community herself, Ms. Barge often tried to keep her identity cloaked as she managed to earn a postgraduate degree. "Those [Hindu] ideas of purity and pollution exist across every stream, in every school. It gets to hard-core Indian values: It's not just about where you reach; it's about where you came from."

The suicides have occurred at 16 different institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and at the universities of Hyderabad and Bangalore.

In 2008, a final-year Dalit medical student at Government Medical College in Chandigarh in the Punjab hung himself in the college library; Jaspreet Singh left a note in his pocket describing how the head of his department told him repeatedly to his face that he would never, ever be permitted to be a doctor.

That professor had failed him several times in course work, although Mr. Singh had never before had anything but top marks. After his death, an external committee re-evaluated his exams and found that he should have passed. He was awarded his degree posthumously.

On March 3, 2010, exactly two years before Mr. Meena's death, another young aboriginal man killed himself at AIIMS. Bal Mukund Bharti, 25, was just weeks away from earning his degree, something unprecedented in his community in Madhya Pradesh.

His parents, who'd taken out massive loans to support him, told a team from of investigators from the Insight Foundation, which works to support Dalit and aboriginal students, that he repeatedly complained of harassment from his professors.

He said that one often complained, "I don't know where they come from, these Dalits and [aboriginals], getting here without studying anything."

Yet Mr. Bharti was, in fact, brilliant. He had scored eighth among hundreds of thousands of students nationwide in the intensely competitive engineering entrance exam – he passed up the seat to become a doctor instead. AIIMS carried out no investigation and says he had psychological problems.

And this April, an MBA student hanged herself at a private college in Gurgaon, the new technology and industry hub on the edge of Delhi. Dana Sangma was aboriginal, from Meghalaya state in India's remote northeast.

The university quickly released the explanation that she was distraught after being caught cheating on an exam – but her uncle, her home state's chief minister, who had personally enrolled his niece at the high-priced school, called that claim preposterous.

He registered a complaint with the National Commission of Schedule Castes and Tribes, saying she had been driven to suicide by harassment at the college.

India has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, especially in the age group of college students. But these deaths stand out because of the clear connection, often described in suicide notes, with the discrimination the victim endured.

The issue goes to the heart of a story that India wants to tell about itself these days: that traditional guarantees of privilege – wealth and caste – are losing power in favour of merit.

But if that is at all true, it is thanks largely to the program of "reservations" – a form of affirmative action under which all publicly funded educational institutions must reserve about 40 per cent of their seats for aboriginal (or "tribal"), Dalit and "other backward caste" students.

A percentage of jobs in government institutions are also reserved, as are political seats in municipal government.

The education reservations were set out in the Indian constitution adopted in 1950, although it was decades before there was more than a handful of such students who even reached the point of applying, and uproars from dominant-caste students and their families were a consistent drag on the program's full implementation until recently.

Today, there is a politically incorrect tint to complaining about reservations, but many dominant-caste students still resent them.

India is desperately short of higher-education institutions. The Ministry of Human Resource Development says the country needs at least 1,500 more – 520,000 students wrote the entrance exam for the IIT this year, competing for fewer than 10,000 spots.

A degree from one of the elite engineering or medical institutes is a ticket to a life of comfort. But the competition for seats, combined with the reservations, means the admission cutoff – the minimum grade for acceptance – for non-reserved students hovers in the high 90s.

Dalit students are perceived as taking seats that should go to students who scored higher. Indeed, there are thoughtful critics, such as the leading New Delhi public intellectual Gucharan Das, who point out that inequality in India today does not always follow traditional lines – some in the "other backward caste" groups are prospering, but they pressed to be included among the reservations, while other poor people are left out.

But those are the exceptions. Anoop Kumar, who runs the Insight Foundation, says most of the backlash against reservations comes from an (often deliberate) misunderstanding of the principle. "People are defining merit strictly in terms of marks in the entrance exam, and that conveniently discounts all the other factors affecting the performance of the students," he says.

"So a student from an urban, upper-caste, upper-class background who has both parents literate and studied at a an elite, private [English-language] school is considered more 'meritorious' when he or she has 85-per-cent marks, than a reservation-category student who goes to a terrible government school in [Hindi] and has no one in the family who is literate but still scores 75-per-cent marks."

Yet their dominant-caste peers still grouse that the reserved-category students would never make it if they had to compete on an open field. Their professors often share that view: As Ms. Barge points out, the faculty in these prestigious institutes is overwhelming made up of people from the dominant castes, since only a single generation of Dalits really has had the chance for a professional education.

"They have this idea rooted in their psyche that tribal and Dalit students 'don't have the merit and can't match up to us,' " says Ajita Rao, a Dalit medical doctor who studies discrimination in professional education. "That's the hidden thing."

Dr. Rao says that resentment, hostility and isolation – rooted in the idea that Dalits and aboriginals are "unclean" – permeates college life. They are shunned in dining halls and dorms and mocked in classes, ever reminded of their marginalization.

This has a debilitating effect on students who always thought of themselves as achievers.

"You go for [an oral examination] and they ask you your name and where you are from, and you say Meena from Rajasthan – they say, ' Oh, okay,' " says Jagram Meena, 20, who was a close friend of Anil Meena's (but no relation – their surname is given to all in their caste group).

He says such exchanges have a direct effect on his performance: "You feel dehumanized and you forget everything you want to say. They are saying, 'Okay, you are a reservation-category student and you don't know anything.' You're marked from that moment."

In 2006, a series of protests by Dalit and aboriginal students at AIIMS complaining of discrimination prompted the central government to appoint Sukhadeo Thorat, a prominent academic from a Dalit background, to investigate.

His three-person commission found dorms segregated by caste, students subjected to open hostility by their teachers and even physical attacks by dominant-caste students on those they considered inferior.

The Thorat report said these students consistently reported having less time with oral examiners, and being asked their surname in unnecessary situations. It faulted AIIMS for failing to provided language support to students coming from Hindi- language schools and for relying heavily on subjective assessments rather than more objective tests.

Also, in a grim foreshadowing of the experience Anil Meena would describe a few years later – the report criticized cases of sudden rule changes that had a disproportionate impact on reserved-category students.

In Mr. Meena's case, the weight given to one assessment was changed to 50 from 25 per cent, seemingly arbitrarily, after the exam had been conducted. This caused him and many other students to fail – almost all reservation students, said Mahinder Meena, an intern at AIIMS (also from the Rajasthani aboriginal community) who helped organize protests after the suicide. The Thorat report recorded a pattern of such incidents.

AIIMS's administration rejected the report "in totality," calling it biased, although under public pressure it did increase its language-learning support.

In the wake of Anil Meena's death, the administration acknowledges only that he had been depressed about failing an exam and was struggling with English.

"This was a tragic event," says Rakesh Yadav, AIIMS's subdean for academic issues. "No institution wants that."

The school did offer financial compensation to Mr. Meena's parents. But Dr. Yadav rejects the idea that the university's conduct had any role. "It is absolutely not true. All support any [medical] student needs is provided – the faculty and the administration is always there to help out."

Dr. Yadav will agree that the area of language support might be insufficient – that an hour a day might not be enough to get a unilingual Hindi student through a medical curriculum. "It's basically a language problem."

Beyond that, however, he says there was "no discrimination" in AIIMS. "If you say faculty are doing the discrimination – it's too much. … They assess students based on marks."

As for bias, he adds, there are processes to prevent any individual professor from vindictively undermining a student, but clinical skills, for example, must by definition be evaluated in person: "To modify it to be 100 per cent objective – it's not possible."

However, after Anil Meena's death, AIIMS contacted Prof. Thorat again and asked him to return to the school to investigate, which he considers a major improvement over the hostile reception to his last inquiry.

"This time there is an attitude to do something about the problem they face," he says. "I have a feeling that because of these two suicides … it shook the faculty and teachers."

Jagram Meena hopes so. He points out that his friend Anil placed 400th in the all-India medical entrance exam, far higher than most of the general-category students at AIIMS. They both certainly struggled in their first year – they had to consult the dictionary 10 times to read a single page of their textbooks – but Anil was managing.

He played Bollywood music loudly to relax, or joined friends – mostly from his caste group – for cricket in the courtyard. His father and brother were taking loans to send him fees every month. He was coping, Jagram says, until the rules kept shifting.

"We're in no way lower than the general-category students," says Jagram, sipping tea at the canteen outside the student dorm.

"One day," he says – when the public schools that prepare Dalit and aboriginal kids are as good as everyone else's – "we'll all be one category."

But Mahinder Meena cuts him off, demanding to know how change like that could come as long as it's almost impossible for Dalit students to succeed.

"Our fear about his suicide," Mahinder says, "is that it will change nothing."

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's correspondent based in New Delhi.